So what do Bill Gates, Pierre Omidyar, Larry Ellison, and Steve Jobs all have in common? Yes, they are all billionaires. And yes, they're among the most famous and successful technology innovators of their generation.
What else? None of them have MBAs.
From this, one could conclude that it's possible to forgo two years of business school and five-figure tuition fees on your way to revolutionizing an industry. In fact, many entrepreneurs and innovators will tell you that their craft simply cannot be taught in a classroom.
Yet this is precisely what some business schools seem to be doing - offering an Innovation or Entrepreneurship & Innovation (E&I) MBA concentration. There's little wonder why these specialized programs have wide appeal, despite the entrepreneurial and venture capital veterans who insist an MBA is unnecessary. After all, who wouldn't want to be part of the "next big thing".
Part of the popularity of innovation management as a field comes from the mythos (and wealth) created by the likes of Gates, Jobs, and others who elbowed their ideas into the marketplace. But the first lesson in some of these specialized programs is that ideas—even great ideas—play a relatively small role in successful innovation and entrepreneurship.
"There's an assumption that the idea phase is brainstorming lots of ideas, and then critically evaluating these ideas to get 'the good one,'" says Peter Boatwright, coordinator of the Management of Innovation and Product Development MBA track at Carnegie Mellon University's Tepper School of Business.
"That's a lay assumption," says Boatwright. "It has a partial truth, but it's more false than true. Every idea has some piece of it that might be brilliant, but it's unrefined, and has a long way to go."
Learning to take an unrefined good idea, and turn it into a product that "resonates in the marketplace" is what Boatwright's track is all about. Aside from the core business skills taught to most MBAs, his students learn to conduct market research, recognize an idea's "fatal flaws", and then focus on the details that will make the product better.
Or as Nikolaus Franke puts it, "turning a technological success into a commercial success."
Franke co-directs the Professional MBA in Entrepreneurship & Innovation at Vienna University's WU Executive Academy. It's a part-time program designed primarily for scientists and engineers who might be brilliant in their field, but have not had much training in business, marketing, and strategic thinking.
"Many of them work in companies with a technology orientation," says Franke of his students. "They become team leaders and so on, but then they realize, 'okay, now I need to know more about this business thing, or I will get stuck in my position forever.'"
"There is a broad range of knowledge and skills that people need," says Franke. "They need to know something about strategy, about market and demand, organization, financing, and the monitoring and controlling progress."
Other business schools that offer an innovation-focused MBA include Iowa (Tippie), Rice (Jones), Wisconsin Madison, McMaster (DeGroote), and the Grenoble Ecole de Management. Meanwhile, E&I specializations are available at MIT (Sloan), NYU (Stern), Toronto (Rotman), Calgary (Haskayne), and Exeter.
The Vienna program, for example, exposes students to different innovation contexts. This is done both through a diverse student body, but also with an annual trip to the Cambridge/Boston area—the famous Route 128 loop—where students are exposed to the prevailing "let's-just-try-it-out attitude" there and other venture capital hubs, like California's Silicon Valley.
Only a fraction of students graduating from WU's E&I track, however, will found their own ventures. The same is true of students in Tepper's Innovation & Product Development track.
"They are going into an existing company that has the resources to develop and launch a product," says Peter Boatwright. "They aren't trying to focus on venture capital: how to raise money. They are trying to focus on finding the value, putting it together, and making a compelling case to senior management so that they lead this venture up."
"They're going to need to push the boundaries in the company," adds Boatwright. "At the beginning of your career, you can't say, 'trust me, I know.' You have to communicate it in such a way that they get it. That skill is critical."
But what about students who actually do want to follow in the footsteps of the famous entrepreneurs, and start their own venture? How does an MBA help prepare them?
"The conventional rap against business schools probably ten years ago was that you can't teach people how to start businesses, but maybe how to manage things that are up-and-running", says Brian Silvermann, professor at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management who coordinates the school's Innovation and Entrepreneurship MBA major.
"I don't know if that was ever true, but I don't think that is the case now", he says.
Silverman says business schools can equip an aspiring entrepreneur with three main things. The first is the basic management skillset that almost every MBA program seeks to deliver. The second is a specialized set of courses that focus on entrepreneurship and new venture development, and teaching methods like case studies where students play the role of entrepreneurs in theoretical discussions, and get to "crash and burn a few companies before they actually get out there."
A third important benefit of business school, according to Silverman, are the entrepreneurship-focused activities and events where students get "rub elbows with people who have done this, or folks out there who invest in companies".
Entrepreneur Catharina van Delden confirms that a formal MBA program can help. Three years ago, she co-founded a consultancy in Munich called innosabi. Then she started the part-time Executive Program in Innovation & Business Creation MBA program offered by HHL Leipzig and Technical University Munich. Since then, she and her partners have gone on to launch a venture called unserAller that facilitates cloaser collaboration between companies and customers in product development.
"What the program helped me to do was to make our whole business concept and business model way more scalable than it was before," says van Delden. "It helped me realize how we could improve on the business model, how we could develop, and actually make it successful."
The program served as an inspiration for van Delden, who not only benefited from the feedback and interaction with faculty and fellow students, but also from soaking up the strong "entrepreneurial spirit" in Munich and Leipzig, and during study periods at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, the program's partner institution.
"You get a chance to talk to a lot of other founders of successful companies, and that's a very important part of the program".
So when a specialized E&I or Innovation MBA program ends, the entrepreneur ideally leaves with an empowering troika: management skills, start-up skills, and a network. It's no guarantee that they will ever get those billion dollars, that private jet, or enshrined on the Mount Olympus of Entrepreneurship. But they might just be better prepared for those first meetings with venture capitalists, along with the other twists and turns of starting a business.
Photo: Sparkignitor / Creative Commons